I read with interest the news that CNN pundit Alex Castellanos was "revealed" by Media Matters to be working with the health care industry on their ad campaign. Everyone seems "shocked, shocked!" that he is in fact exactly what he's usually identified as on CNN, a "GOP Media Consultant." With all due respect to the good folks at Media Matters -- who uncovered this -- why is it surprising? And with all due respect to the good folks at CNN, how can you say that you didn't know, when clearly, some poor graphics schlub was smart enough to identify him correctly in the lower-third.
The real question that everyone should be asking is not how much the industry or the GOP is paying Castellanos, but rather, how much is CNN paying him? As a regular rotating member of Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room "best political team on television," it's clear -- at least to some -- that he's paid for his time: Just like Donna Brazile, James Carville and half a dozen other seasoned pundits who appear regularly with Blitzer in his "strategy sessions."
That, to me, is just as troubling. I think you'll see in my upcoming book I wrote with Eitan Gorlin, "I Am Martin Eisenstadt: One Man's (wildly inappropriate) Adventures with the Last Republicans" almost this exact story played out, but told about Donna Brazile. Yes, we viewers knew she was on the DNC rules committee last summer. But what we didn't know was how much CNN was paying her for her opinion. And as we suggest in our book, she may have had a vested interest in staying neutral in the long battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Does CNN pay her on an annual contract basis, a multi-year contract, or by the show? Does she make AFTRA minimum, or more? I don't know. But either way, it's a conflict of interest (or at best, a confluence of interest) that should be revealed one way or another. One thing is certain: The cable news networks do not seem to have learned the lesson of the retired Generals pundit scandal from the early Iraq War.
Our Eisenstadt book is essentially a funny fictional satire of the punditocracy and the uneasy reliance on dubious pundits with conflicting loyalties. Look, I personally think the world of Mr. Blitzer, Ms. Brazile (and even grudgingly respect Castellanos himself -- hey, he's just making a buck), but cable news needs talking heads to fill the 24-hour news cycle by any means necessary.
I know this for a fact, because today I was a balloon boy pundit!
Canadian national TV brought me in to an LA studio to give my "expert" advice on balloon boy Falcon Heene. What was my expertise? I have experience as a media "hoaxster" and therefore could spot whether balloon boy was a hoax or not. What was my media hoax that gave me this expertise? Inventing a fake pundit. Specifically, Martin Eisenstadt -- the fake McCain adviser who spread the rumor that Sarah Palin didn't know Africa was a continent -- and the subject of my upcoming book. Hello, irony? You're wanted in Studio 2A.
So which is the greater sin? Having a pundit who's paid by both the news organization and the people he or she's punditing on? Or having an unpaid pundit who's only real motive is the fairly transparent one of shilling for an upcoming book ... about a fake pundit?